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Defining Funny in a Politically Correct Age

 

the-hookMany negative words have been written about Millennials, also known as the “Participation Ribbon” generation, and for the most part I have tried not to be a grumpy old man in this situation.

I read about the student who sued his professor over a bad grade, and shrugged it off as an isolated incident.

I heard first-hand from a manager who received a phone call from an employee’s mother, because he gave the Gen-Y employee a less-than-stellar performance review, and laughed at it.

I even rolled my eyes at the tale of a mother accompanying her son to a job interview, and the kid wondering why he didn’t get said job.

But when I heard Chris Rock say, “I won’t work colleges anymore, because they’ve gotten too conservative,” I paused.

In his own words: Not in their political views — not like they’re voting Republican — but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody. Kids raised on a culture of “We’re not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose.” Or just ignoring race to a fault. You can’t say “the black kid over there.” No, it’s “the guy with the red shoes.” You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.

This frightened me, because if an icon like Chris Rock had to be worried about offending kids, what hope is there for a comedian of my limited stature?

As it turns out, none.

I recently had a gig at a college, and it was an unmitigated disaster.

Or so I was told.

I thought I was receiving a typical college response; the instant the lights went down, I heard nothing but kids talking over me. When I said my first “Hello!” into the microphone, approximately 3 of 150 people responded. The rest were in their own world, eating, talking, and posting selfies to Instagram.

I shrugged it off and barreled forward the best I could, because I was under contract. I had to sling my jokes for thirty minutes, audience indifference be damned. It was with genuine surprise when, twenty-five minutes later, I was pulled from the stage and told I was offending people.

I’m not dense. I knew I wasn’t killing it. Had the apathy started half way through my set, I would have said, “Oh crap, I’m losing them!” Since disinterest was the norm from the get go, I figured, “This is how it’s going to be.” But I never in a million years did I think I was shocking the audience.

When I was told otherwise, I asked which of my comments were out of line. The opening response was: “Off the top of my head? When you made fun of white people names.”

To be fair, I did make fun of white people names.

After the audience ignored my “Hello,” it was obvious they weren’t going to pay attention to me telling jokes. Given that, I decided to speak with them, to do interactive material. I started working the room, dancing on verbal eggshells the whole time. I am not a stupid man; I knew going in I would have to tread lightly.

For fifteen minutes I spoke with different tables, different students, making light, situational jokes: “You only ate half a baby carrot? You were too full to finish a baby carrot?”

(Groundbreaking? No. Safe? Yes. Hilarious? No. Chuckles from the six kids paying attention? Yes.)

When I got to a table of white girls, I figured I could be slightly more daring. And by slightly, I mean .5 on a scale of 1-10.

“What’s your name?” I asked the first.

“Rachel,” she responded.

“Oh God…” I groaned, over-emphasizing my exasperation to show I was being absurd. “That is the whitest name, ever.”

I heard mild giggles from the peanut gallery, and the girls at the table laughed, so all was well.

Or, as stated, so I thought.

When that moment came back to bite me in the butt, I was floored. I asked for clarification—how it was offensive?—and was told, “The event is multicultural. Our goal is 100% inclusivity.” Pointing out any race, even my own, brought attention to race, which automatically “made things uncomfortable.”

Though I didn’t, I wanted to shout, “FOR WHO?!” I’ve been a comedian long enough to know the difference between comfortable and uncomfortable laughter, and the chuckle I heard at my comment was genuine.

The other “point of offense” is one I should have seen coming. Up front I wondered whether or not I should do a joke in support of gay marriage. After all, I know people hear trigger words and react to them, not context.

Instead of yanking the joke, I instead went crystal clear, adding a preface up front. Speaking slowly and clearly, I started the joke with: “I’ll tell you this; I support marriage equality, and I don’t understand the arguments against marriage equality…”

(Note: I didn’t say “Gay marriage,” I made sure to say “Marriage equality.” Politically correct. Boom.)

The joke itself is at the expense of bigots. During an election year, I saw an advertisement declaring the #1 threat to America (translation: ‘Merica) was GAY MARRIAGE.

Not being able to wrap my head around such obtuse, bigoted, off-putting (and so on) thinking, I wrote a joke mocking that viewpoint.

After performing it, I was told: “The problem is with you, a heterosexual male talking about gay marriage in the first place. You cannot determine how someone who is homosexual will react to your stance on their issue.”

Hearing that, I was at a loss for words.

If my joke had been at the expense of homosexuality, then yes, it would have been out of line. But to say I cannot talk about it? That’s bullshit. Especially because the LGBT community needs me to talk about it. Not as a comedian, but as a straight person. The only way marriage equality will happen in America is by having straight people standing side-by-side with the LGBT community, championing their cause. The majority has to see and understand the plight of the minority in order to create change. If the LGBT community were to stand alone on this, legislation would stagnate, and the issue would be dismissed as “A gay problem.”

(Just like AIDS was “A gay problem” in the 1980s, before whoops! Straights started dying from it, too.)

Anyway, logical failings aside, if there was any viewpoint I thought would be safe on a college campus, it would be pro-marriage equality. But no. Even the topic is verboten, meaning the line was crossed when I opened my mouth. What came out of it didn’t matter.

What’s “funny,” and by that I mean “not funny at all,” is that when I was removed from the stage, I had been doing material involving my kids for about ten minutes. It’s probably the safest material I have, with nothing remotely controversial contained within.  In fact, not only is it not controversial, it’s deeply personal material, and at times empathetic. How often do you see a comedian tell an audience he and his wife are donating their embryos to an infertile couple? I’m guessing never. I do, and it generally gets a nice pop of laughter at the end, too. I mean, not at this show, with all the texting and ignoring… but when an audience is engaged, yeah, they laugh.

Unfortunately, no one had the wits about them to realize, “OK, he’s transitioned. No more hot topics like ‘gay marriage’ or ‘white people names.'” Likewise, no one had the decency or common sense to think, “You know what, he only has five minutes left, let him finish.” Because when you’re not paying attention to content and you’re simply trying to indulge the delicate sensibilities of a society waiting to be outraged, you’ve already lost.

I will admit: in some teeny-tiny way, I understand where the ‘fear of offending’ comes from at a university. Many are taxpayer-funded institutions, and when someone gets upset it might up in the newspaper. Then donors get angry, and the governor gets involved, and blahblahblah…

I get that.

But you cannot cater to everyone, and everyone is offended by something.

That’s simply life.

My hope is that my experience was an isolated incident.

My fear is that this is the future, with over-the-top sensitivity a new normal that uses good intentions as a weapon to destroy society. After all, we all know good intentions are exactly what the road to hell is paved with.

 

Stand Up Shots, May 20th

A Real Life Del Griffith

StandUpChances are I drive more than you do.

Last year I put 40,000 miles on my car. This makes me especially touchy when it comes to shitty drivers, a description that can encompass a wide-range of people.

By my limited perception, I drive “normal.” 5 mph above the speed limit, cruise control on, right hand lane unless I’m passing.

Normal.

Not everyone follows these simple courtesies, meaning there are generally three drivers I hate above all others.

First off, those who speed up and slow down for no discernible reason at all. When someone passes me, pulls into my lane and slows down, forcing me to pass them, it’s mildly irritating. When this process repeats itself several times over the course of ten minutes, I find myself happy I don’t own a gun because chances are they’d find shots fired across their bow.

(Or into their tires.)

Then there are the slowpokes in the left-hand lane. I cannot wrap my mind around the fact that in 2015, people don’t understand that the right lane is for driving, and the left lane is for passing. When I come across someone piddle-farting their way slowly down the left lane I wish the most horrible ass cancer upon them.

The final albatross around my neck is the person who drives exactly the speed limit, or a painfully-slow five miles under. There’s nothing worse than being on an archaic, 2-lane highway behind one of these jackasses. Twenty cars can be lined up behind him, car after car can pass him when able, and he still won’t pull over and kill himself to make life easier for the rest of us.

It’s mind-boggling.

I’ve always wondered who these clueless people are, or if that is, in fact, the case. My hope has always been that they’re unaware, but I suppose there are some bizarre sociopaths out there driving like ass-cactuses for their own amusement; people who laugh as they watch us lose our shit, our anger their fuel.

The neat thing about life is that sometimes you have questions that get answered. By that, I mean I was lucky enough to spend time with a driver who had no business being behind the wheel of a car.

The backstory: I had to fly into a city, where the kind soul of another comedian would pick me up and shuttle me to our gigs in his car. From the airport to the first gig was odd, but not unsettling. The drive wasn’t too far, there wasn’t much traffic, and while he did a few odd things, nothing really set off my “Are you kidding me?” sensors.

It was only as we drove 6-hours to the second gig that I got a full whiff of the stench of his driving abilities. He was, best to describe, the most kind, clueless, fellow ever. I really liked him as a person; I fully believe his license should be revoked.

To start, the man lived in the left-hand lane, attached to it as if they were soul mates. Next, he used no cruise control. His speed would vary anywhere within a 10 mile-per-hour range. One moment he’d be making good time, the next several angry drivers would be passing us on the right, middle fingers held high or fists shaking. I looked at them through the eyes of a documentarian; “Hey, that’s me. I see me in those other drivers.”

He would change lanes without signaling, and would slow down if a traffic light was green for “too long” and might turn yellow.

(Which, of course, meant that by the time we got near the light, of course it was turning yellow.)

To lessen the collective anger level of the world—as well as to protect my own well being—when leaving the second gig and returning 6 hours to the airport, I asked if he wanted help driving. This was an offer he took me up on gratefully.

While I drove, I almost wanted to interview him, to ask, “Do you notice how we’re in the appropriate lane? Does it feel OK to you to be in the correct lane? See how this button I pushed keeps the car at a consistent speed? Does going a consistent speed bother you?”

As we traveled, I discovered he wasn’t too in tune with this own vehicle. I had to teach him how to turn his high beams on, and he had no clue what an odometer was. We had stopped for gas, and I asked him if he wanted me to trip it. He stared at me blankly, then noted in a confused voice, “The car is already running.”

“Yes,” I responded, “I know. But do you want me to reset your travel odometer?”

He had no clue what I was talking about, and it was only then I actually looked and saw both his trip and regular meters were exactly the same. As a comedian, he should have been keeping track of business mileage, but that wasn’t a part of his process.

After five hours, we stopped for gas and it was time to trade places; he would once again be the captain of his own ship, so to speak.

Upon pulling out of the gas station, he started to exit the wrong direction, taking us further from the highway rather than back to it. I had to correct him, and point us the right way.

Arriving at the highway, he almost hit a cement barrier, then attempted to take the wrong ramp, sending us back to the hotel, not onward to the airport. Again, only my pointing out the right onramp saved us from an unnecessary journey back whence we came. Five long hours I drove us without incident; he was behind the wheel for 30 seconds and had already made three mistakes.

Still, I was somewhat willing to forgive his cluelessness until right before the end of our trip. We were on a completely empty 45-mph four-lane road at 3am; a traffic light was 75 yards in the distance. At that traffic light, a dedicated lane existed for people turning onto the highway. So, if someone was at the cross road, they could safely turn right and have without having to merge.

Which is exactly what started to happen. When we were roughly 50 yards from the light, a car at the crossroad turned on to our road and into his dedicated lane.

Without warning, my clueless companion was so panicked he slammed on the brakes, throwing a “Mom Arm” in front of me for protection.

I was almost too stunned to respond.

As he released my chest, I noticed his eyes were wide and his breathing heavy.

I laughed, saying, “You’re a very jumpy driver, aren’t you?”

This gentle tease was an affront to his abilities.

“I’m a defensive driver,” he corrected me, obviously offended.

I damaged my optic nerves rolling my eyes.

We eventually arrived at our destination without any loss of life or damage to other vehicles, and I boarded my plane…

…and now I’m torn. Generally, my road rage is directed to people I know nothing about. Maybe they’re driving slow because they have a newborn baby in the car. Maybe they just brain farted and forgot to signal their lane change that one time.

Or, maybe they’re like my new friend, someone I can really like as a person, but who should be taking a driver’s license test monthly.

Will I hate shitty drivers from here on out?

Probably.

But hopefully I understand them a little better now.

 

Stand Up Shots: May 13

Meme

Stand Up Shots: May 6th

Comedy For Charity

StandUpComics can be a bunch of infighting, bitter, “I-can’t-believe-he-got-the-big-break” jerks…

…but they can also unite and support one another like nobody’s business.

Meet Martin.

Martin is an open microphone comedian in Iowa.

A few months ago, his ex moved to South Carolina with their daughter. Neither of them can afford a lawyer, so everything being done is under the guise of handshakes and kept promises. One promise made was that Martin would get to see his daughter again. That promise is being kept… but Martin doesn’t have the financial means to just up and drive to South Carolina and back.

When Martin created his Go Fund Me page, he did so on the small scale; it was for friends and family. His message was short, “So we all know…” He wasn’t reaching out to the world at large to support his cause; he was just hoping a couple friends could throw in a buck or two.

He also wasn’t asking for thousands upon thousands of dollars. The campaign wasn’t designed to fly everyone around the country in first class seats, just enough for gas and lodging at the local Motel 6 along the way.

So how about this?

Help Martin and his daughter stay at a Hampton Inn on the drive back.

If bigots can support Memories Pizza in Indiana to the tune of $800K, then maybe comedy lovers around the world can support Martin to the tune of $1,000.

$1,000 would pay for gas, lodging, meals… and maybe a special day for Martin and his daughter on the way back. Dollywood? Cedar Point? Who knows? Who cares? Just donate because you want to do something good.

If you have $5 that you can spare, that makes a huge difference to a Dad who misses his little girl.

(And you earn karmic brownie points, too)

Donate Here.

Stand Up Shots: April 29

StandUpHump day, when everyone sees the horizon and it somehow looks a little closer than it should.

Either way, the week is half-way over, so enjoy this giggle.

Follow some new comedians.

Unknowns, those who are immensely popular…

Just follow.

See you next week.

Inside The Mind of a Comedian 2.0

StandUpYou do it out of love.

There is no other reason to become a comedian. No other reason to drive the countless hours in your car, a toilet paper “manpon” wedged in your ass crack to catch sweat the best it can.

(Truckers may be the assholes of the highway, but they do hold certain wisdom)

You arrive at the hotel to find there is no reservation in your name. Why? The comedy club has double-booked comedians, meaning they scheduled two comedians for the same week in the same slot. Unfortunately for you, the other one checked in first. You shake your head and roll your eyes, not understanding how double booking happens; ever go to a football game to discover three teams have shown up to play? No. When the NFL sets their schedule, it’s two teams per stadium. Yet somehow, booking two comedians for the same slot happens more than it should in the world of stand up.

Things eventually get worked out—“you’ll share the week!”—and you make your way to your room. Though January weather is pounding the Midwest city you’re in, it is colder in the room than outside the building. Oh well, at least you weren’t sent packing.

Might as well shower, get some steam going. A pungent rusty waterfall exits the faucet as the pipes bleed free a confession of their rarity of use.

Let it run; things will work themselves out.

(Would that it were this easy in life)

Water goes clear, lift the tab to start the shower. An over-calcified nozzle shoots streams everywhere, like a penis with a morning-after-sex cum clot sending hot piss to the floor, not the intended target.

(That’s what happens, ladies, it’s not our fault)

Showtime arrives; the crowd looks nice. You take the stage and wave after wave of smoke hits, chokes you, and gives you images of coal miner’s black lung. Why some Goddamn states still allow spoking makes no sense, but what can you do? It’s either this gig, or an empty date on your calendar.

You inform the audience, “If Madonna can say ‘a cigarette is a disgusting thing to put in your mouth,’ and she’s had Dennis Rodman’s rod in hers, that tells you a thing or two about how awful smoking is.” They laugh, but don’t extinguish their cancer sticks.

For the entire time you’re on stage, you smile a genuine smile. It’s somewhat meditative, empowering and relaxing at the same time; audience laughter sounding like a chant, “Ohm…”

The show ends, so you head to the door and shake hands as the audience shuffles past. Eventually, an overweight white guy with a beard and confederate hat offers a racist joke.

“You can use that in your act!” he suggests, laughing.

You force a smile through gritted teeth and wonder what the hell went so wrong in the person’s life that they thought it appropriate to approach you with such hate.

Head back to the room; it’s still cold, but at least now you smell like an ashtray. Like any drug, the stage is a high that offers little in the way of lasting effect. The alone becomes palpable.

Turn on the television and Queen Latifah is on Letterman, the pinnacle of all talk shows and your dream. A dream growing ever further out of reach with his retirement approaching at breakneck speed.

The Queen says she likes skydiving; your mind immediately spits out a zinger: “That’s brave, trusting a parachute to hold that much weight. Then again, the army drops tanks out of planes.”

Fair, but nowhere near funny enough for an audience.

Oh well.

You do it out of love.

 

You can read more of nathan’s nonsense on his website.

 

Stand Up Shots: April 22

StandUpIt’s Wednesday, which means fast and funny giggles for you.

Spread the wealth, share the word, and follow the funny people on Twitter.

(And check back every Wednesday for more giggles)

(And check here every week for more comedy posts on the Rooftop blog)

The Woodshed

StandUpIt’s amazing how something obvious can take you by complete surprise.

When the Foo Fighters arrived in 1995, I was as stunned as anyone. Here was the drummer from Nirvana fronting a band. Not only was he fronting it, he played all the instruments on the debut album, having written every song. And those songs were pretty fucking awesome.

Jaws were agape; minds were blown.

The. Drummer.

I didn’t give much thought to Dave Grohl’s backstory; most people assumed he watched Cobain write great songs and learned how to write himself.

Which is only partially true.

Nirvana was his university, but his life before that was a 24/7 path to success. Watching the TV series Sonic Highways, a discovery was made: Dave Grohl wasn’t just a drummer. Since childhood, he had been playing guitar and composing. Dave described owning two cassette players; he would hit record on one, and play guitar. He would then rewind the tape, and hit play while simultaneously hitting record on the other. Dave would then sing along to the guitar, creating a two-track recording.

Basically, Dave Grohl has been writing songs his whole life.

While on tour with Nirvana, he would sit in his hotel and work out the melodies and ideas bouncing around his brain. At tour’s end, he would go to a friend’s studio and record those songs, building up an inventory. By the time Nirvana was no more, a backlog of over 40 songs existed. Dave Grohl was constantly putting in his Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours.

As a comedian, I look at success stories like that with crossed fingers, hope, and resolve.

My “career” in stand up comedy began when I was in the neighborhood of six years old, at Interlochen summer camp in the mitten-shaped state of Michigan. For the talent show, I donned a paper bag and did a set as The Unknown Comic. He was someone I had seen on Laugh In and The Gong Show. I was too shy to show my face, and didn’t yet understand the concept of thievery—I probably thought taking his shtick was OK because I was a kid. In my defense, I did perform original material, making fun of the counselors, and camp food. I did well, too, because I was talking about things the other campers could relate to.

From that moment forward, I was interested in comedy. I spent my time listening to George Carlin albums and seeing Richard Pryor stand-up movies. In school, I was a gifted class clown, with smartass remarks rolling off my tongue with ease. Years later, when I started down the path as a professional stand up, I went to the local comedy club every week to watch every person gracing the stage. I went to as many open microphones as possible, and comedy was nothing short of an obsession.

To this day, I hope I’m always learning. I watch every comic I work with. Sometimes I learn, sometimes I judge. It is what it is. But I’m always putting in the effort, always trying to refine and better my act. I’m putting in the hours, and working toward originality and funny.

If—or when, if I’m trying to be positive—I get an opportunity, I want to be able to take hold and not let go. Just like Dave Grohl did.

Do I think I’ll achieve his kind of greatness? I don’t want to answer in the negative, but I’m not cocky enough to answer in the positive.

But either way, I think I’m on the right path.

And I think that’s important.

 

Nathan Timmel likes to write.

You can read his weekly scribblings on his website.